The Dreaded Basement

Gah, yes, I know. We didn’t want a basement. I know, I know we said that from day one. But dammit, it was unavoidable. I guess there is a reason, a good reason – several good reasons even – why people have them:

  1. They make economical sense. It’s true.
  2. We need a place to store our crap.
  3. It allows a place to hide the ugly things you don’t want to look at – water heater, ventilation unit, deep freeze, cellar.
  4. It gives you a place to hide noisy things – laundry, children?

There are probably more reasons but these are the big ones that I’m using to justify it (and the 5th reason being that we really had no choice in the end, but whatever). Ok, very well, but the question had now become: how do you make a non-walk-out basement inviting?

Natural light is obviously a big thing. Our main level is going to be very bright with considerable southern exposure. Our topographical study (in addition to crushing our dreams of a walk-out basement – not quite) also showed us that in order to have a ground level entrance with no stairs to the front door (north side) and a deck on the south side, we would have a hard time getting much southern light to the basement.

Window wells are how most people who want a ground level entrance to the main floor get light into the basement. But if there’s one thing I like less than ugly basements, it’s window wells. They seem tacky and unnatural to me. Basically we realized that we would only be able to put at most three to four windows into the basement primarily along the east side. The basement was simply not going to be as bright and open and airy as the upstairs, it was just impossible, unless we wanted to change everything in the main level, which didn’t make any sense. So how do you make it a place that you wouldn’t mind hanging out in and spending some time?

In our last house, the basement was dark, poorly lit and had very low ceilings. Most people who have basements like that simply avoid the space and use it as a place to dump the things that they don’t really care about – laundry, the Christmas tree, maybe some old paint. But when we were renovating that old house, I wanted to experiment down there. The rest of the house was quite grand and executive. The basement was different. So instead I had some fun. I built a floor to ceiling shelf with plumbing pipe that I used as a workshop for wood carving. In the little bedroom we painted the walls, floor, and ceiling in bright white and used it as our summer bedroom (uninsulated and way cooler in the summer), and the third room I covered with OSB sheathing and made into a wine/beer cellar. Before I’d completely avoided the basement. But after that reno, I loved spending time down there. So we got thinking. Why not just embrace the underground space? The upstairs would be bright and open. The downstairs, dark and cool. We came across this ICF (insulated concrete form) system that was pretty much perfect. It’s called “Nudura One.” Most ICF is made like this:

Standard ICF

A certain thickness of foam on the outside is chosen, depending on your desired R-value, then 8” of concrete, and then another 2” of foam on the inside. This is required so that the concrete has a “form” to sit between (the two layers of foam). The unfortunate part about this was then you have to frame and drywall the inner foam layer. This results in a fair bit of cost in materials and labour to finish it (although your insulation value and airtightness is excellent with ICF). The Nudura One solves these inherent problems. Instead all of the insulation foam goes on the outside of the wall. The form is made by using a jig to secure sheets of plywood to the inner layer and concrete is then poured between the foam and the plywood. After the concrete dries, you unscrew the plywood and – Ta Da! – you have yourself a finished, highly insulated, airtight, badass concrete wall. Yes, if you want, you can still finish the interior wall, but why? You got a badass concrete wall right there. Done.  <br><br> 

Land Topography

If we couldn’t put our whole house on one level then could we do a walk-out basement instead? If you have a nice natural hillside then a walk-out basement is entirely possible and can look quite nice as the house appears tucked into the hill and protected by the slope. I started to realize that the walk-out basements I really didn’t like were the ones that I tended to see in the City, where really there are no natural hills. In the City, and primarily in upper-class suburbia, they man-make the hills and sit houses in them. They look pretty stupid and have led to my general despise of them. That being said, a proper natural site for a walk-out is kind of appealing.

On our land, there is the river valley itself that is steep, however I would feel very uneasy trying to place our house just so on the edge of the river’s slope, even if the geotechnical survey that we have (provided by the former owners) says it could be done. Still, our land has a nice slope to the edge with some natural ups and downs to the land. Perhaps a walk-out could fit in there. But how the heck is one to know?

Well, a topography guy can tell you apparently!

The only way to really be certain is to have someone come to your land and perform a topographical survey. It’s pretty neat (and fucking expensive). They walk around the site taking GPS readings every 10 feet. This allows them to put all of the points into a crazy 3D map showing all of the elevations of the land. They use the same program (ArchCAD) as our house designer, so once the topographical study is done and placed on the program, the designer can then simply drag and drop the house on various spots on the site and see what looks best. Fancy stuff. The future, I tell you.

So, which spot did a walk-out look best on our land? You ask.

Well, none. No spot worked. Not even close. They all sucked.

At best it would’ve looked forced (a la suburbia). At worst it would have looked even more ridiculous. We would have had to excavate so much dirt away and landscape and grade that we would have to completely destroy our build site to make it even remotely possible.

Unfortunately we had to spend $900 to find out it wouldn’t work. But I guess now we could let it go and not question it or something. I dunno.

Anyway, so we’d now come to the conclusion that a single level slab was not practical and a walk-out basement was not possible. That left us with the third and final option: a basement.

Planning and designing the house

Well, I’m about done with planning and designing. About 3-4 months ago we thought we were close to being done designing the house. Like really really close. However even though it was “close” to being done. It was not feeling right. There was something off about it and we weren’t really sure why or what it was. It was tough to admit that as we had already spent a considerable amount of time and money getting the house to the point that it was in mid-October. We’d done eight designs by that point, which is quite a few to not have it complete or at least feeling good about it. The pressure was also mounting as we were getting close to our first time frame – to have construction drawings started by December. But the fact was we were not feeling good about it and we were a bit discouraged.

In the back of my mind was also the price tag of this place. It was creeping up and up. There were some costs that we had not accounted for when we first put together the budget, such as, septic system ($18,000), well-hook up ($8000), water treatment system ($10,000), kitchen appliances (not sure how that was forgotten – $10,000-$14,000). Also, the footprint of the slab foundation on pilings was also increasing. We really wanted to keep it to less than 2000 sq.ft. But that was just not happening and the rooms that we didn’t care about as much but needed (mechanical room, storage) were really taking up a large chunk of the space – taking away from the spaces we really wanted to be a certain size (living room, kitchen, bedrooms).

My mother is an interior designer and we had been a bit reluctant to ask her to give us feedback on it… Well, Darcie had been a bit reluctant. Understandably, who wants their mother-in-law to design their house? However we thought we better ask her what she thought and what changes she might suggest.

“Be honest.” We told her. Now, the one thing you have to know about my mother is that she is one of the kindest and most caring people in the world. Everyone who has met her agrees (not just me). After awhile of looking at it she said, “I’m sorry to say this, but this is just… bad.”

Ouch. Our hearts sank. We’d spent so much effort on this and, well, it sucked, I guess. Though this was followed shortly by an overwhelming sense of relief. We knew it was not good, but we were too close to it to see the truth.

Over the next few days we spent pretty much every moment that we weren’t either at work or sleeping (there was not much sleeping though) brainstorming, thinking, and redesigning the space. There were some very important things we needed to figure out: 1. How could we make this space smaller? 2. How could we save money? 3. How could we make it more functional? 4. Still keep the views of our land and the river valley focused? 5. And still maximize the Passive House efficiencies and principles of the home?

There were no easy tasks here.

We needed to start to question the things we thought we wanted (an office, 3rd bedroom, vaulted ceiling, several large windows to the east, kitchen separate from the living spaces) and those that we had adamantly refused to consider beforehand (basement, open kitchen).

Initially we had not wanted a basement. Basements are very popular in this part of Canada. It is highly unusual for a house not to be built without one. In a lot of other places, basements are not common due to high water table or rocky land. But that’s not the case here. Still basement can be a problem due to the lack of light compared to spaces above ground and you still have to be careful to grade and landscape properly to make sure that water doesn’t want to find it’s way inside. But really why were we so against it? These problems could be rectified. A basement is more expensive then a slab or a crawl space of the same size, but if we reduced the main floor size and put those things that didn’t need to be upstairs in the basement, we could thereby reduce the overall footprint making the extra cost of a basement justifiable. We started crunching some numbers. The slab with piles and grade beam was going to be ~$37,000 for 2000 sq.ft. I figured if we could reduce the main floor size by 200 sq.ft. at the anticipated cost of $250/sq.ft. then this would balance out the extra cost of doing an ICF (insulated concrete form) basement.

Ok, but how do you make a basement nice, comfortable, bright, and inviting?

Everyone suggested a walk-out basement. I don’t know why, but “walk-out” makes me cringe. I think it’s all of the fancy snobby acreages and suburban houses that have a “walk-out”. Everyone is all like “Oooo a walk-out.” It seems like it’s a pretentious thing that people with a lot of money do. Maybe that’s an unfounded statement (probably) but something about it just felt too… pedestrian. Too upper class. Too suburban. It reminded me of a perfectly manicured lawn, or maybe even an astroturf lawn, on a 1 acre “acreage” and a 7000 sq.ft. house for two people and their chihuahua. Gah.

I had to prove it to myself that a walk-out would be OK. We went on a house tour to some middle aged hippy folks’ acreage across the river from us. They had built an Eco-house about 20 years ago and on their land, with a natural hill, they tucked the house neatly into it. You still entered the house on level ground but then it opened to the south from the other side. The rooms in the basement were bright and airy and there was a nice little courtyard out the basement door. Hmm. Maybe… Maybe we could do this.

Trimming off a mere 200 sq.ft. from the main floor turned out to be super easy – one bedroom and the laundry room. Done. But why stop there? The smaller we made the footprint the more money we would save.

Weirdly enough as we made the main floor smaller it seemed to make the rooms and spaces more functional. Suddenly a lot of our issues with flow and function on the larger basement-less bungalow were being solved by simplifying and making the house tinier.

Finally we got it down to I think as small as we could at 1240 sq.ft. of interior space (including the 16″ thick walls the total was 1440 sq.ft.). Interestingly though that gives 2480 sq.ft. of conditioned floor space with the basement and main floor combined. So, making the house “smaller” and therefore cheaper, actually made it larger overall. That seemed like the best of both worlds! It kind of felt like cheating.

Making the main floor the size we did also allows us the option to leave the basement unfinished. I know that’s pretty lame, but it allows us flexibility now that we didn’t have before with the one level house (which would have all needed to be finished). This way if the budget gets overran in other areas then we can wait to finish the basement until later. The main floor has everything that Darcie and I need. The basement allows room to grow when required.

The sense of relief that came over us was immense. Although it set us back in the process by a month I’m so glad we took the time to analyze this more and really figure out what our needs were and where we want to spend our money.

Now we needed to figure out if this crazy walk-out basement idea was going to work or not (yes, more money is needed. Sigh).